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Greetings From Canterbury Park

PRELUDE:

The Winner's Circle

Let me start by saying that there may be no prettier sight in this mean, mean world than the way a winning jockey tosses his riding whip to his valet at the cusp of the Winner's Circle.

Picture the scene: There's the jockey in motley racing silks, sitting high on the saddle with the kind of upright posture no etiquette maven can teach. Face flushed with wind and spattered with mud like spray-on stucco. Beneath him, the thoroughbred is heaving, thoracic cavity completely engorged, knees swishy with fluid, nostrils flaring, maybe dribbling a thin trickle of blood. The horse is making his way gingerly across the deep loam of the track--as clumsy now as he was graceful moments ago.

The losing jockeys may have already dismounted, conducted their cursory conversation with the losing trainer and owner--what went wrong out there?--and then scurried down the concrete spiral staircase into the subterranean waiting room, for the next race, the next trip, the next rush at the starting gate.

And the winner? While the tote board in the background flashes with the bet returns--win, place, show--the jockey puts out his own high-wattage smile. The grandstands might be empty; the horse may be the worst kind of dog--or soon to be dog food, even. The jockey may have spent all afternoon sweating in the hot box to make weight, or kneeling on the bathroom floor with fingers forked, for a speed-purge. But the previous two minutes have been... can the feeling be put into words? I mean, you try describing the precise sensation of your last orgasm.

I've watched this scene about 100 times now--enough to learn to zero in on the jockey's face, where the post-race action is. And though I've noticed a similar Christmas-morning quality to all their countenances, each jockey has a trademark smile. I know, for instance, that Manuel Alicea's grin describes a compass-perfect arc, perpendicular to his aquiline nose. I've seen Jessie Lantz show his dental work, from upper left incisor to bottom right bicuspid. I now know that Ronnie Allen Jr. smiles from the eyes and that Larry Sterling Jr. appears curiously intense, as if his win has initiated a communion with higher powers. Randy Schaact, the veteran of some 18,000 trips, smirks like he just stole your wallet. And then there's Luis Quinonez, who seems to win just about everything, and looks, with his broad face and weirdly girlish eyes and long lashes, like nothing less than a movie star.

Just before the radiant instant fades and the jockey returns to the world of the giants around him, he tosses that whip, and it is thin and balletic in the air. The motion is crisp, jaunty even. The instrument of victory takes wing. Sometimes the whip flips once or twice end-over-end, or twists, or both--but I have never once seen the valet drop it. The thing never hits the ground.

Unified Field Theory

Consider the anatomy of the loser.

First the physiognomy--though that's the least of it. We have the eczemac of scalp, the way-prematurely balding and the bald, the ones with perms that didn't take. Those with prodigious bunions and other podiatric blemishes. Those with adult acne that never cleared up, and, also, the grotesquely freckled. Hippy men and hipless women. The dwarfishly low-waisted. Pear-shaped men. The congenitally beer-gutted and the ectomorphically gutless. The slouchers and the slump-shouldered and people who seem to be stooping even when they're not stooping. Those with a concavity to the chest--some hollow spot just below the sternum--where playground bullies landed dull, resonant thuds with their outstretched index fingers. This is a thumbnail portrait of the loser.

But then the cosmetics of failure--however unsightly--don't begin to address the full taxonomy of the subject. Listed below then, is a brief attempt to enumerate some major constituent categories of loserdom.

There are losers who are subjected to the whims of circumstance and suffer exquisitely for it.

There are losers who would be winners if they could but be satisfied with the scale and stature of their winning. But they can't.

There are losers who could be winners but settle for too little for too long, until they've atrophied to something less than what they might have been.

There are losers who believe themselves to be winners although everyone else can see this is not the case. And instead of seeming proud or courageous for the conceit, they seem paltry and almost insufferable instead. And they're losers for that, and very hard to be around.

There are losers who were born that way and got no breaks and died like a cur and knew themselves as such every day along the way.

 

Most of us are losers.

Now, we shift from the abstract to the case study, presented below. The subject: Canterbury Park. What is most compelling about the racetrack, I will maintain, is that its very currency is the karma of winning and losing. Unlike the casino (see Mystic Lake, a few hundred yards away) and its conveyor-buses of Slot Zombies playing against the house, the track allows for the mathematical viability of winning. Winning! Here, you bet not against the intractable devils of probability, but against the one-eyed veteran with the spiral notebook and the illegibly annotated racing form. Against the rug-topped orthodontist playing the favorites off the tip sheet. In the casino, everyone, by relentless statistical verities, is a loser. Conversely, pari-mutuel track betting necessitates a winner.

Yet money is an accessory to the real transactions, a mere unit of measurement. There's something else on the line, and I think a lot of jockeys and horse owners and players, big and small alike, can sense it. We try to fill this mute lust with a host of panaceas: the Promise Keepers; psychotropic drugs; no-money-down real estate; affordable plastic surgery; exercise cults; recovery groups; Scientology. These experiences echo in the same serotonin-deficient quadrant of the brain that yearns for... now if I could name it, I wouldn't be yearning for it, would I?

But that catalog lacks the archetypal power of man and steed and speed, and a lot of other shit that sounds absolutely ridiculous in some kind of grocery list, but is no laughing matter in the first person when some seriously big-ass ponies are thundering down the stretch. We're talking beastmaster shit here and I don't mean the Marc Singer movie or its sequel. I would argue that the (relatively) few people who still go to the track appreciate even more dearly what is involved and what is personally at stake. They may not know that they know what it is. But I like to think that they do.

The Front Office

Meanwhile, the thoroughbreds are going south. They're going to Remington Park in Oklahoma. They're going to Lone Star in Texas. They're going to Prairie Meadows in Iowa, where the slot machines pad the purses to over $100K a day. They're going to Florida where there's year-round racing; maybe they're going to Disney World. And they're not coming back.

The horses are the just the latest group to defect from the Canterbury family. The fans have already fled en masse; they're purportedly the self-same gamblers now fondling slot machines in Indian gaming parlours across the state. Back when Canterbury opened in 1985, the average gate for live racing was over 13,000; last year's tally was less than a third of that. Opening day in 1987 attracted 27,000 people; this season, fewer than 9,000 attended. The daily betting take, known as "the handle," has fallen from a high of over $1 million a day to less than half that in 1996. It does not take an MBA to tell which way the wind is blowing.

Though this may not appear the profile of a healthy fiscal operation, strangely, Canterbury has never functioned better. Last season, after some 51 days of live racing and another 310 of televised "simulcast" betting, the track finished a whopping $71K in the black. It was the first profit the track has ever shown.

But then the whole history of Canterbury Park has been something of a burlesque, with each season stripping away another veneer of managerial competence. Brooks Fields brought live racing to Minnesota in 1985, three years after voters approved a measure allowing pari-mutuel betting. The track facility cost $80 million to build: It included 1,600 stalls in 33 barns; indoor and outdoor restaurant seating for over 1,800; grandstand space for 4,000; a mile-long dirt oval; and a 7/8 mile turf track. It was, in just about everyone's estimation, a fine facility and a worthy cause.

But despite possessing a practical monopoly on gambling in its first years of operation, Canterbury Park racked up impressive losses. Off-track betting stalled in the courts. An "experimental" harness-racing program lost $8.5 million. By 1989 Brooks Fields and the Santa Anita Corp. had had enough; they dumped the track on a pair of Michigan businessmen at a fire-sale price of $1.2 million (plus another $12 million to buy the remainder of the $45 million mortgage).

So too, there was a certain comedic element to the blunders of the early years. The Minnesota River regularly flooded the county roads leading to the track; driving down from the Cities--a half-hour ride on the new Highway 169--could take an hour or more. In 1991, the track contracted with popular jockey Willie Shoemaker to conduct a handicapping seminar for new fans; the promotion was to be known as "Shoe U." "Shoemaker was a nice old guy," one Canterbury regular recalls. "Not controversial, beloved by all. And then he got drunk and drove off a cliff. It wasn't really funny. He was paralyzed. I guess that's kind of the way this place worked back then."

 

By the end of the 1992 live meet, Canterbury wasn't working at all. Ladbroke, the British racing concern that had leased a contract to manage the track, canceled the 1993 live racing season. The Minnesota Racing Commission followed by canceling simulcast betting. There was nothing left to cancel; the track went dark. Another year would pass before Ladbroke would unload Canterbury, and another season before the track would reopen for live racing in the hands of the Sampson family.

The Sampsons, who made their fortune in cable TV and telecommunications, have purported that they never had any interest in running a racetrack. Given the circumstances, it's not a difficult claim to accept. They say they're in it for the horses, which, implausibly enough, might be more than half true. The other hypothesis in currency is that the Sampsons are dumb; I've heard Randy Sampson, Canterbury president and G.M., described as "simple" by an employee of his own lobbying firm. Having met him briefly, I choose not to believe that. By going public with stock, the Sampsons have retired almost all of the track's previously prohibitive debt; a state tax abatement has raised the novel prospect of marginal profitability.

But a $71K return won't bring real purses back to Canterbury Park, nor nationally renowned trainers, nor breeding mares and stallions. And so a rather sour public-relations campaign is being conducted to introduce slot machines at Canterbury, with the net handle to go toward a new stadium for the Twins. It is an unholy matrimony, these two causes, and I think the racetrack has since come to wish it had proposed slot machines on their own dubious merits. However, I'm not convinced that a majority of Canterbury folks give a shit about slot machines; most make no secret of their contempt for the vegetative mentality of casino gambling. These people would pledge allegiance to Skee-ball if they thought it would scare up cash.

What the horse people want is their fans back, and the marquee trainers, and the brood mares and the fast geldings, and the 90-day meet, and the well-kempt grass on the turf oval. In short, they want to reverse Canterbury's speedy decline from second to fourth rate.

Speaking as a not-particularly-keen oddsmaker, I'd bet they're not going to get anything. Call it 7:2. And having developed an affection for racing at Canterbury and the racing faithful there, it saddens me to imagine what the future holds for this track of the damned.

The Backside

Folks on the backstretch don't sleep: grooms, trainers, exercise gallopers. On race days, they begin feeding the horses at 4:30 a.m., and they hot-walk and exercise-ride them from 6:00 to 10:30, and they prepare the horses for the races between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., and they race them and cool them down until midnight and they drink until the bars close at 1:00 a.m. And then they start the process all over again. It is an inexorable regimen, seven days a week. On a good week, maybe six.

The pay is thin for such unglamorous labor--about $250/week--and the lifestyle is nomadic. The Lone Star meet in Texas follows Canterbury in Minnesota follows Beulah in Ohio follows winter in Louisiana. "Trackers," as backside workers are called, are near cousins to America's better-known gypsy population: carnies.

But Canterbury, as I am told time and again, takes care of its own. There's a fellow on staff named Chaplain Rick who leads Sunday school, and bible study, and three-on-three basketball. People with families go on picnics; some of the jockeys play golf. There's also a weekly AA meeting for backside workers, although I'm told these are sparsely attended. "Most of the guys who should be there are in the barns having a beer," one groom says. Among the younger folks, promiscuity is apparently more rule than exception. Gossip, at least, is rampant; with the jockeys thrown into the equation, the lascivious mind inevitably turns to images of the late-night debaucheries on the set of The Wizard of Oz.

The rental market around Shakopee is tight, so many backside workers bunk for free in dormitory rooms above the stables. A stolen carpet from the nearby motel and a small television are said to make these quarters "just like an apartment." After a while, I learn to stop asking after details like these, because the matter-of-fact answers speak to a loneliness I'd rather not pry into.

 

Nor could the trainer's skittish companion, the racehorse, ever be mistaken for man's best friend. The entire stock of modern thoroughbreds originates with three imported 18th-century sires. As such the species has undergone a population bottleneck--an hourglass-like constriction of genetic material. The resulting progeny are honest-to-god freaks of nature. They're abnormally fast and competitive and gutsy (except for the sizable minority of thoroughbreds that aren't, and will never win anything, ever). It's said that a thoroughbred will run until it dies--which sounds sort of romantic, but apparently can happen, and is an ugly thing to witness when it does. Thoroughbreds are also highly prone to irreparable joint, bone, and cartilage damage, as well as respiratory bleeding and infection.

Finally--and perhaps most importantly--the majority of thoroughbreds I've encountered are either high-strung, stupid, ornery, crazy, or some combination of all four. About a quarter seem to manifest the symptoms of an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. They kick without provocation and they can and will bite your finger off. Or so I've been warned.

It's a paradox I can't resolve: why grooms devote such faithful service and really depressing, life-squandering hours to tending chronically anti-social animals. "Some of the horses like it if you scratch their head, but most of them just want you to feed them and leave 'em alone." So explains Theresa Malarkey, a groom, galloper, and ex-jockey who along with her brother Don, a trainer, "practically grew up in the barn."

"There are some horses that you have that get injured," Don elaborates. "And when the truck comes to take them out on that one-way ride, I'm happy to see them go. Then there are some horses who've always been decent to you, and when the truck comes for those ones, it's awful hard not to cry."

The Malarkeys train about a dozen horses with a retired Red Wing school superintendent, Dan Mjolsness. Don and Theresa are both dun-complected and wiry and they have some disciplined post-jockey posture. Though they're not quite unfriendly, there's something hard and no-nonsense about the Malarkeys; these are not folks who make a living off pleasant conversation. They speak mostly about horses in a shorthand trainer argot. Sometimes when Don enters a stall, he'll emit a Tourette's-like bray from the throat that seems to calm the horse. Either that or he's spitting. What I'm getting at here is that the Malarkeys are equine-oriented in a way that suggests they're in this game for life.

But maybe not. For the first time this winter, Theresa didn't migrate to the next meet at the end of the Canterbury season. She'd moved in with a man, and while Don, who was married 11 years and is now divorced, traveled with the horses, she stayed behind. "I worked a factory job this winter in a place that reproduces video tapes," she says, administering a brush to a horse named La Me that will run later that night. The coat is lustrous and clean and she brushes briskly. "This was the first normal job I've had. And it made me realize that this is the only thing I know--working with horses."

Don, on the other hand, is saving up to get away: a sabbatical, sort of, but not like any yuppie-flavored sojourn toward creative renewal. "After you've worked hard for a long time," Don says, adjusting his cap, "and you've got a few thousand dollars sitting in your pocket, I like to take a few months off and piss it all away. Hunting and trapping and fishing. And then when the money runs out, you come back and work some more."

The Tele-racing Center

From a single spot in the simulcast racing center, you can see 37 television monitors. They're stacked one atop the other like pomo cairns, broadcasting silent signals from four, five, six tracks at once. Top left is a six-furlong sprint at Arlington. Middle screen, an allowance race from Belmont. Bottom right, a $7,500 maiden claimer at Saratoga. The races seem to be staggered, although I can't tell if this is by televised design.

In the tele-racing center upstairs the regulars frequent private tables with private screens. Nonsmoking on the east side, smoking on the west. These are the people that bet: big and often. (Their wagers compose about half the track's total handle during the live racing meet.) They are also the players most prone to talk to the horses in haunted, incantatory tones. They get on a phrase--runfourrunfourrunfourrun--and they stick with it, sort of autistically, until the race ends. Sometimes players from across a room will join in, starting a kind of simultaneous debate--Mr. Runfour vs. Mr. GosixGo--and the whole scene takes on the aura of a music video for Steve Reich.

 

Marilyn has worked as a teller since Canterbury opened, and is invoked by some around here as a pseudo-talisman. "There are people who will only come to my counter," she says, "because they think I'm lucky for them. Maybe there are 10 regulars like that. Then there are guys who place a bet at every counter and see which ones win. Then they go back to those counters... A few of the same people are in here every day. You get friendly with them. Some of them are sick, but you have to get over thinking that to do this job. You just have to."

At the adjacent counter, Tara chimes in: "There are some men who walk out of here near closing. And you know they're going over to Mystic Lake. And then they're back here in the morning when we open, wearing the same clothing. And you know they didn't go home."

And the races go on all day, a ceaseless cornucopia of pony porn. The images are split-screen, close up, slo-mo. And the net effect to the disinterested viewer is that of one continuous race with one field of ur-horses: no beginning, no end.

The Press Box

Paul Allen has groupies. At least I hope they're groupies, although it's altogether more likely that they're female friends who've gone heavy on the henna. Allen is the track announcer, and one race day I see Henna One and Henna Two sitting in the booth between races, giggling and girlishly sipping diet sodas and being all-around supportive in a way that usually feels fine on the receiving end. I should say here that Paul Allen, though a handsome enough young fellow, has eyebrows that could be shampooed, and a tan that is either bottled or melanomically unsound.

Paul Allen also announces at Bay Meadows in San Francisco, and I'm given to understand that he's fairly good at what he does. That is, he observes the race from a glass booth that juts out maybe 100 feet above the apron of the grandstand, swinging a pair of mounted binoculars along the ellipse of the track, all the while extemporizing like a benzedrine freak. I particularly enjoy the way he says "Put a Q around race number four" when Luis Quinonez wins, which, if I haven't mentioned it already, is about every other race.

But Allen's best work never goes out over a live mic. About 15 minutes before the first post-time, Allen places a cork between his teeth--I'd guess it's from a beaujolais, although the Hennas might know for sure--and he starts performing some superanimated race announcing. It's a diction exercise, probably good for the glottals. I have no idea what he's saying. But Allen attacks the etude with the passion of a method actor, gesticulating in sharp transverse slashes like a wing chun sensei crossed with Mussolini. The blank template for any race, it seems, already exists on the tongue behind that cork. The horses are stock characters in a master narrative of Allen's devising. For a minute, it's as if the thoroughbreds follow the call and not vice versa.

Meanwhile, in the press box proper, a less public group of performers clown about their business. The press box has traditionally hosted a rich cast of characters and sad sacks and alcoholics (in varying stages of recovery) that is not even remotely representative of your random sample of demographically normative Americans. There's an autotote in the room too, and it seems to get fairly constant action, although no one ever seems to be winning. Some of this gambling might medically qualify as compulsive. Without going into specifics, I suspect that some of the public handicappers and racing-form reporters and writers and track personnel are not very good at their jobs, which is a phenomenon I can personally identify with. It endears them to me.

Also worthy of note from up here is the view, which is surprisingly panoramic for a region with the topographical variety of a skillet. The perspective rendered is that of an IMAX film before the camera goes into free fall. You can see a half-dozen municipal water towers and the ever-widening concrete arteries servicing these population nodes. It's a textbook case of urban sprawl, and proof that the Sampsons might be shrewder than they let on--sitting here on 390 fat acres of condo-ready exurbia.

Pigeons nest along the catwalk immediately outside the window, and they ride the thermals like mixed-up doves of prey. For thermal gliders, these pigeons aren't exactly IMAX material, but then they're not so bad either. And that may be as apt an analogy as any for the thoroughbred racing down below.

 

The Player

The first time I meet Gibson Carothers he is riding his chair in front of a 13-inch television. On the screen in front of him, the fourth race at Del Mar is reaching the half-mile mark. Or maybe it's the fifth race at Santa Anita. Or the eighth race at Hollywood. It doesn't really matter which, because Carothers bets them all. Southern California is his circuit.

And he's up on the balls of his feet, lurching synchronically with the televised jockey--dovening, really--as the number two horse tries to break off the rail at the top of the stretch. He does not see me standing smack in front of him, amidst the rows of empty tables in the Club House. His arms start sliding across the table as number two makes a play for the lead. He's trying to give the horse a hand ride from 2,000 miles away, to lift it by the reins at the nadir of its stride and pull it up to the peak.

Gibson Carothers, it might go without saying, is a serious player.

For instance, right there in his wallet he keeps a mini-xerox of his first six-figure payout. He'll show it to you if you ask him--and maybe even if you don't. There, in crude dot-matrix italics, is the figure, $125,589, and the date, 4/22/88--the payout on a pick-six ticket at Santa Anita. He's run off fresh copies of the receipt before when the paper starts to fray; it's like some sort of merit badge recognizing the moment when he became a first-tier contender. "It seemed like the right thing to do at the time," Carothers says, "although I've never done it again."

Carothers has hit a few other six-figure payouts since, and a far greater number of "modest" wins that would frankly stagger anyone who has aggressively played dime poker and considered it a form of gambling. His specialty is the pick six, an exotic wager where the bettor selects the winner in six consecutive races. The odds against this--depending on the number of longshots that come in--range from the daunting to the mathematically profane. Take out your calculator and crunch out 5 to the 6th power, and then put a 1 over that number and those might be your odds. A ballpark figure, at least.

There are syndicates of bettors who sink $30K into playing numerous permutations of potential winners each time the pot rises high enough--say $1 million. This is called "buying" the pick six, and it's a clumsy and charmless victory of capital and probability. This kind of operation is to the average handicapper what Deep Blue is to Kasparov. Gibson Carothers, by way of contrast, plays elegantly, wagering about $500 on an average winning attempt. And he's hit over 50, alone.

For Carothers, the emotional strain of riding such exponential profit curves comes at irregular times. Other handicappers get bent any time they're still "alive" going into the final race, having correctly picked the first five. They disappear to the bathroom, the bar, under the table. They conduct elaborate and puerile rituals of covering the eyes while peeking through the fingers. Carothers's anxiety waits to strike until after he's won, but before the board lists the number of other winners and the attendant size of the payout. (Carothers has cursed a $98,000 win, when he'd played a ticket's worth of longshots and a seven-figure monster strike seemed imminent.) Time feels distended in the interim, as in some relativity equation, actualized.

The next wave of adrenaline crests hours later: unpredictable and uncontrollable. This is no Sominex-level insomnia but an act of rebellion by the autonomic nervous system. (Again, for comparison, imagine the workaday high that follows a $100 pull-tab, or a slot machine shitting quarters, then multiply the emotion by a factor of a thousand... and then imagine that dumb luck was only the smallest part of the equation.) Which is to say that sometimes after a big hit, Carothers gets up out of bed and teeters to the bathroom and recycles a meal or two. And then returns to the track the next morning for more.

It takes a singular personality to devote such fierce statistical intelligence to such a temperamental muse. I use the adjective "singular" here in its purest sense. Because I've never met any other gamblers in Carothers's league, although I've met a handful who aspire to such, and Carothers assures me they exist. His estimate is that there are as many professional horse players as PGA tour members. Make of that what you will.

 

So while I can't generalize about what kind of man makes a successful player--and they are all men, or nearly so--I can tell you that Carothers has the voluble confidence of a gifted pitchman. Which is more or less what he used be as the creative director of the mammoth BDDO advertising agency (after graduating Berkeley in the 1960s, where he once sat in a classroom with the late free-speech leader Mario Savio). Before "retiring" at 33, Carothers wrote a catchy little slogan for Burger King: Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don't upset us.

I want to ask Carothers to sing this to me in his animated Louisiana drawl; he's 52 now, but some pride-of-parenthood must remain. Yet in the moment, diffidence gets the better of me. Carothers is less than imposing, physically at least. Recumbent, he's got a pronounced paunch, and his complexion has the approximate hue and opacity of the skin on Elmer's glue. What intimidates about Carothers is the sense that he, quite literally, is in on a secret that eludes the rest of us. A theory he confirms.

"Sometimes when I'm in a slump," he says, "I'll walk around the track and look at the other people. And I'll ask myself, 'Who are these morons?' And I say that because I know that I know 1,000 times more than these people. Now I hope every once in a while they get their hit, so they'll keep coming back and betting. Because, eventually, I'll destroy them."

I sense no malice in this pronouncement.

And another, related tangent: After Carothers left advertising, he went into business for himself spinning slogans for T-shirts and coffee mugs and the like. The kind of legitimately trenchant cultural artifacts that are more likely to end up as a joke on The Simpsons than in a glass case at the Smithsonian. You may be familiar with his work. It's Carothers who coined the phrase Life's a bitch and then you die.

The Winner

Luis Quinonez, who is widely known as "The Q," has won roughly three times as many races as any other rider in the jockey colony this season. This record is to some extent self-perpetuating. Quinonez's agent--a fat man with tinted glasses and sweat pants who takes a 25 percent cut of his client's earnings--arranges with trainers to put his jockey on the most promising mounts. The more wins a jockey has, the better the horses he's offered, and the more races he wins. And so on.

So it's difficult to distinguish what makes Quinonez such a superior specimen; trainers say that he's strong and he's fearless, although these traits make up the lowest common denominator for just about any semiestablished jockey. Still, Quinonez's number of first-place finishes puts him in his own class at Canterbury, and it might not be a stretch to say that at this point he's too good for the track.

Quinonez, however, says he likes Canterbury. He got his first winning trip here in 1989 on Daffle's Dazzler (a name I like about as much as I do taciturn jockey agents with poofed-out, blow-dried hair); today he's almost a celebrity. "I go out to a place," he says, "and people go, 'There's so and so,' and it feels good."

When Quinonez arrived from his family farm in Mazatlán, Mexico, in 1985, he had no green card and no money to speak of. He proceeded to work for four years as a groom in Albuquerque under conditions that were no doubt remarkably unpleasant. Quinonez doesn't say this; he says that he was, and is, lucky. Which highlights a distinctive characteristic of El Q; he is optimistic and personable and solicitous to an extent that verges on the unnatural.

There's a level of calculation to this, no doubt. Among El Q's paramount skills is a quality rapport with trainers, owners, grooms, gallopers, reporters, and, of course, racehorses. He's photogenic and soft-spoken. It has proven a profitable way to be. On a good race week, Quinonez might win $4K or more; in a year, $125K. This summer, El Q's brother is visiting from home, trying to make his own start at the track. He looks too big to ride competitively; he stands about an inch taller than his older brother, who's 5 feet 4 inches. But then Luis Quinonez inspires platitudes. Anything is possible.

Luis himself used to tip the scales at close to 130 (he's about 110 now). He doesn't worry about his weight anymore, though, because he says that nervousness impedes the sweating. This is a sophisticated hunk of sports psychology, and again it seems indicative of this jockey's mastery of his immediate environment. He manages all the immediate conditions off the oval, and the on-track odds conform to his will.

 

Quinonez has a wife and kids who live in Oklahoma and he pays rent on a second apartment near Canterbury. It is also said that he supports his family back in Mexico. I guess it should come as no surprise, then, that the anxieties come out when Quinonez dreams.

"Horses are always on your mind," he says. "Sometimes I dream a race is starting and I'm late to the paddock. And the horse is there, waiting." Quinonez smiles; this is nada, it means nada. "Today I dream I'm riding in front," he continues. "I'm winning. And right before I win, I wake up."


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